Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Eight
In case you hadn't realised where this terrifyingly overlong series of articles got its name from, it's the final misquoted proverb in the final scene of Time And The Rani. To the accompaniment of one last flourish of banjo, The Doctor and Mel bid a jaunty farewell to the Lakertyans and head into the Tardis on - it has to be said - a rather uncertain note. "You're certainly going to take a bit of getting used to", muses the normally perma-chirpy companion. "Oh I'll grow on you, Mel", replies her newly regenerated fellow traveller. "I'll grow on you".
Whether you like it or not, Sylvester McCoy - and the last couple of series of Doctor Who in general - did grow on people. There were, as has already been pointed out at considerable length, a large number of fans who actually enjoyed it for what it was, without recourse to hair-splitting about the 'legacy' of the Diamond Logo or the 'classic' status of wiped sixties stories they could not possibly have seen. There was a tangible sense that while the BBC 'suits' were most definitely not behind the show, the departments involved with promotion and commercial exploitation and the actual business of what average viewers want to watch very much were. And, for better or for worse, it seemed that the general public at the very least had some idea of who the latest Doctor was and what he looked like; something that hadn't really happened since Peter Davison very first took on the role. And then, of course, 1989 rolled around and Doctor Who wandered off into a hedge muttering something about how the tea's getting cold aye unless it isn't.
After that, this momentum just seemed to evaporate as if it had stepped on a spinning globe thing. Time And The Rani immediately slunk to the very bottom of every Best Story Ever!!!4 poll, with the majority of the other Seventh Doctor stories not far behind. Or ahead. However that works exactly. Even the most battle-hardened McCoy defender would happily admit that fresh converts to the cause have been decidedly thin on the ground. Lengthy and considered ruminations on the strengths of those last couple of series - and this is in no way the lengthiest; I cannot recommend the fantastic Wallowing In Our Own Weltschmerz highly enough - are met with indignant cries of "rubbesh!!" that make that ancient huffing and puffing about 'pantomime embarrassment' seem erudite and original. In short, set out to defend the McCoy era, and you've got an almighty task on your hands.
Around the time that Time And The Rani went out, John Nathan-Turner was fond of responding to harrumphy claims that Doctor Who wasn't as good as it used to be by insisting that 'the memory cheats'. If fans could see all those cherished early stories again now, he implied, they'd find that it had always suffered from budgetary restrictions, waffly scripts, cramped studio space, limited rehearsal time and ropey effects. Back then, with about two and a half stories having been released on video at a cost of roughly eighty seven thousand pounds per tape, this was a fairly safe defence to mount. Within a couple of years, though, this argument would unravel in spectacular fashion as story after story after story came out at an affordable price and fans could judge the extent to which their memories had hoodwinked them for themselves.
In some ways, in absolute fairness, he was right - Doctor Who old and new has always suffered from all of the above and more, with far too many fans far too obsessed with concentrating on an agreed pantheon of 'classics' and 'turkeys' to bother too much about problematic questions like that. Objective and rational analysis was never actually on the agenda, though - the late eighties episodes were being attacked from a perspective of personal preference, and defended from a perspective of personal preference. And those same harrumphing fans - and, let's not forget, the general public, who couldn't care less but they liked it when it was Tom Pertwee and the maggots or something - found that yes, they did prefer those older episodes, Anti-Matter Monster and all.
So no, if taken in that specific sense, the memory had not cheated. But has it 'cheated' in entirely the opposite direction? Has - and you'll need to take a deep breath before reading this sentence - the story that they were most determined to delineate their preference for older Doctor Who against now itself come to be negatively defined by that exact same nostalgic process? Or, in short, do people now - whether through a misguided sense of nostalgia or simply a popular perception that they have subsequently picked up on - enjoy hating Time And The Rani more than they do actually having to have an actual opinion on it? Well, gauging that would require large numbers of fans to actually watch it again, which most of them seem curiously reluctant to do. And given how many of them will tell you without being asked that they 'stopped watching' after the first episode, it's questionable how many of them have actually seen enough of it to make a proper judgement in the first place.
In his excellent KLF biography Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, John Higgs spends a good deal of time discussing Doctor Who. Not simply because the band scored a number one hit with a House Music-styled cover of the theme tune - itself much more of an act of artistic subversion than the 'novelty hit' it gets tediously written off as - but because of its strange correlation with The KLF's own story. Approaching it from the perspective of Alan Moore's intriguing theory about the 'Idea Space', he focuses in on the moment when a once-loved television show falling from favour landed right in the path of two musical pranksters looking for a reference point to prove their theory that treasured pop culture references welded to familiar riffs and modish musical trappings could bag you a chart-topping single. This was the point, argues Higgs at far greater length and with far greater detail than it might appear here, when the slow reversal of Doctor Who's fortunes began; from the moment Gareth Roberts reached for the lemon disinfectant, through the brief but pivotal interlude when the future of the show was actually in the hands of a handful of fans with genuine talent and imagination, through the crossbar-hitting mid-nineties revival (which, lest we forget, featured Sylvester McCoy for a whole quarter of its running time), on into the general public finally starting to look back on it with affection and interest, and right up to its triumphant ratings-conquering return. It was a long and gradual increment, and one that this book argues starts right with the 1987 production team's flawed but defiant refusal to bow out quietly. You might not quite agree with this, of course, but it's worth pondering on the next time that Davina McCall and Pappy's Fun Club snicker at The Kandyman on some dribbling clip show.
You probably won't be too surprised to hear, however, that I do largely agree with it. And here's why. Paul Cornell once described Doctor Who in the late eighties as a 'bullied' programme, and in amongst the acres and acres of reams of nonsense that have been written about 'black-clad' villains and 'bohemian' lead actors, there's seldom been a truer or more perceptive word spoken. Doctor Who spent the final years of its original incarnation dodging a hail of metaphorical and possibly even literal dustbins, attracting more and more sustained abuse than such actual deserving targets as Benefits Street, Days Like These or Adrian Mole - The Cappuccino Years as even its own fans seemed bafflingly determined to drive it into the ground. Even that rancid late eighties revival of The Saint somehow got off lightly in comparison.
But note the use of the word 'dodged'. Like or hate what they did with the programme, the production team were not prepared to go without a fight, and they put up a good one against so many batterings from so many directions; as indeed did the fans who actually did like what they did with it. Maybe it didn't always quite hit the mark, but without that small but substantial display of defiance there might have been no fan-driven attempts at official continuations of the series in other media, and given that one of these fans was a certain Russell T. Davies - who included plenty of stylistic nods to the McCoy era in his own interpretation of Doctor Who (as I wrote about at some length in my book Well At Least It's Free) - you can pretty much finish that line of thought yourself. Also I think Time And The Rani is quite good. You might not have picked up on that.
Right at the end of that closing scene, as Keff McCulloch weighs in with a deliberately jarring and ponderous chord change, Sylvester McCoy leans back out through the Tardis door and doffs his hat to the Lakertyans, sporting a confident and mischevious grin that is pretty much the polar opposite of the nervous and knowingly sarcastic smile to camera that had ended his first official appearance as 'The Doctor'. He'd arrived, and it certainly gave a good feeling to at least one viewer who just wouldn't get on board with this idea that you weren't 'supposed' to like Doctor Who any more. And sometimes this kind of brash, upbeat confidence is all you want from a television show. Not drama, not menace, not 'emotion', not slick sophistication, just a good-natured ending to a good-natured bit of unashamedly cheap and cheerful in-your-face entertainment with boisterous acting, restraint-free music, and ridiculously over-the-top colours. Even if you were watching on the black and white portable.